Sun umbrellas are an ubiquitous scene on coastal beaches, offering shade from the blistering sun. So it makes sense that the same type of umbrella could be adorned with solar panels, allowing it to collect the sun’s energy in order to provide a cooling result.

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beach umbrella with yellow base and solar panels on the top

Sammontana, Italy’s leading gelato and frozen desserts brand, raised the bar on its sustainability goals in 2016, inspired by the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals. In conjunction with those goals, the company recruited help from international design and innovation firm Carlo Ratti Associati (CRA) and architect Italo Rota to develop a solar umbrella.

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person sitting in beach chair underneath yellow and tan solar-powered beach umbrella

“The project builds on Sammontana’s objective to lower the environmental impact potentially applicable to Italian beaches — which are the iconic backdrops where Sammontana is served, marking the most pleasant and joyful moments of summer,” said Sibilla Bagnoli, Head of Communication and Image at Sammontana Italia. “For many years, our company has been focusing on such special environments, experimenting with new ways to welcome the public, manage services and innovate while protecting the environment.”

beach umbrella folded up

A key element of the umbrella is its unfolding photovoltaic arrays, which were designed in collaboration with Chuck Hoberman, a professor at Harvard University who has spent the past four decades developing transformable structures. The resulting design is based on photovoltaic systems on NASA spaceships.

worm's eye view of open beach umbrella

The origami-style umbrella measures 8.2 feet high and 10.5 feet across, much like any other beach umbrella. However, this umbrella is a statement for energy-efficiency with foldable panels that can be adjusted for the best sun exposure. Power generated in the process is then used for refrigeration and cooling in the form of mini-fridges filled with cold drinks and refreshing misters. Several umbrellas linked together have the potential to chill a larger ice cream freezer or be further scaled up to power beachfront resorts in a variety of ways.

person repositioning umbrella

“Can we use the power of the abundant summer sunshine to make our holiday experience more sustainable?” asked Carlo Ratti, founder of CRA and a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. “The design concept of this project starts from using the sun to produce electricity to cool the space under the umbrella — and then scale it up to provide power to any beach resort. We are delighted that Sammontana invited us to develop this project, as both our organizations share a strong commitment to environmental values and human wellbeing.”

The first prototypes of the solar-powered beach umbrella were showcased at Biblioteca degli Alberi Milano Park in the city center of Milan, Italy, starting June 12, 2021.

+ Carlo Ratti Associati

Images via Carlo Ratti Associati